Interviews · Movies

Talking Love and Robots with the Director of ‘I Am Mother’

We chat with Grant Sputore about the joys of practical effects and the challenges they supersede on the set.
I Am Mother
By  · Published on June 15th, 2019

The robopocalypse is coming. That’s the classic (i.e., cliche) fear, anyway. Humans have mucked up this planet beyond repair and the time has come for our A.I. children to take over. The Terminator and Chopping Mall had it right. Kill ’em all, let their god sort ’em out.

I Am Mother is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi character study with a different point of view. What if our robot children maintained a love for their creators. What if they had our best interest at heart and were eager to pull us out of our absurd desire to kill the planet and each other?

Unable to get a Western he was working on off the ground, director Grant Sputore reached into another personally beloved genre in hopes that others would be more willing to join his cause. As a massive fan of Alien and The Terminator, he was eager to contribute to the cinematic canvas of possible-futures but just as eager to differentiate from the expected doomsday pessimism. Well, kinda.

I Am Mother is set some distant future when a Daughter (Clara Rugaard) is reared by a loving artificial Mother (Rose Byrne). The child is humanity’s last hope after a catastrophic event ended its organic reign of the planet. But her education is interrupted when an interloper (Hilary Swank) smashes upon their doorstep, upsetting the bond between kid and parent. What loyalty does the next generation owe to the previous one? What loyalty to we owe to our genes?

I spoke to Sputore over the phone regarding the practicalities of achieving the Mother robot and the extreme benefits of working with her on set. I Am Mother is an astonishing feat of technological craft that offered great benefits to achieving the essential emotions of the story. With very little money, Sputore and his team envision a grand yet contained world. Getting everything down on paper was essential to pulling off the miracle. The director stands on the shoulders of great filmmakers, but he holds a deep faith in his concept and his characters; he believes you have not experienced a robot tale quite like this one.

Here is our conversation in full:

The robot sub-genre is a popular one with lots of exceptional past entries. How did you end up tossing your hat into the ring?

Well, sci-fi, it’s been my favorite genre for as long as I can remember. I’m a child of Ridley Scott, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, those kinds of guys and their films. You’ll probably hear their names come up a bunch of times across this interview. This particular film was actually birthed from failure. [Co-writer Michael Lloyd Green] and I had developed another project in another genre that we love that’s slightly less popular, which was a Western. When that project didn’t happen, we thought maybe we should put slightly more focus on stories that we want to tell within genres that were slightly more commercial and marketable. So we turned to what was actually a genre that we loved even more than Westerns, which was sci-fi.

We looked at the blank page, thinking we needed a low budget that’s sci-fi, that talks about stuff that we find interesting in the world, the big questions that sci-fi likes to explore, and it also needs to have heart, and it needs to have a human component that is going to leave people moved and connect to people. Basically, we managed to thread the needle between all of those things and tell the story of a young girl trying to work out who she is independent of her parents and the world that she’s been raised in. Those aspects are fairly sci-fi, where her mother is a robot, and the world that she’s been raised in is just a hermetically sealed bunker underground after the end of humanity.

Let’s talk about the Mother of the title. She’s a helluva creation.

Well, just practically, she was achieved as a guy in a costume, in the tradition of C-3PO or Robocop. It was basically a fancy bit of wardrobe that was made by Weta Workshop. But certainly, that is the thing that as a director, you have your most sleepless nights over, because either that’s going to be incredible, or it’s going to be terrible. It’s your job to make sure that you land on the incredible end of the spectrum. Yeah, I mean, separate to how she was achieved, which was largely a celebration of the films from those filmmakers that I mentioned, like the alien in Ridley Scott’s Alien, or the alien in James Cameron’s Aliens. E.T. is obviously a practical creature effect, or the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are practical and still look amazing now.

Our film is very much in the tradition of those. I get a real kick personally out of achieving Mother that way, practically. But as a character, what we wanted to do with the Mother and the point of distinction from what had come before was to see a robot who really loves humanity and unlike a T-1000, or a T-100. She really wanted what was best for the humans in her charge.

I imagine because you shot her practically, you had a better understanding if you were succeeding with that character or not within the frame.

Absolutely. It’s instantaneous, and the actors know it too. Actor, director, you can keep the faith. I’ve had quite a bit of experience doing visual effects in commercials and things like that, so those moments where Mother was going to be CG, I could imagine myself down that road and end up not getting what I wanted. But what’s harder is for the actors, in the scene to go, “Hey, this guy in the green suit is going to be a robot, and it’s going to look like this.” A practical suit is way more useful for them than staring down at this guy in the leotard. There’s just less imagination required, and that becomes particularly pertinent when you’re dealing with six-year-old kids, who are running around interacting with the robot as well. That was a godsend.

Also, editorially it helps, because when you’re cutting the movie together, you’re seeing the actual movie, you’re not still six to four months down the road from seeing something that looks anything like what the film is going to look like when it’s finished. It’s a much more immediate way of making films for sure. It comes with its own challenges and its own pressures, but most of those were in pre-production, most of those was getting the design right so that people could actually suspend disbelief and see the finished suit and go, “Okay, that’s a robot. I’m going with you on this journey.” And then put it out of their mind. But getting to that point was certainly scary for all involved.

What was the element that finally clicked with Mother’s design? When did you know that this was the most effective robot?

Well, we knew going in that she was always going to look like a robot. She wasn’t going to be a human with robotic insides, or it’s not going to be a half-human, half-robot in the form of Ex-Machina or something like that. She was going to be very much inspired by the real world of robotics that’s happening right now. In fact, she’s largely inspired by a robot called Atlas that Boston Dynamics makes, with a number of other considerations blended in. Most of that experimentation happened on paper, because we didn’t have a lot of money. This isn’t a studio film where we could afford to half realize, or fully realize a couple of different concepts and bring them into the real world and look at them and make assessments on them, and then decide which part we ultimately go down. All of that experimentation happened on paper with an incredible designer at Weta called Christian Pearce, who drew a lot of different variations of the robot for us.

Then we’d have conversations between what were the creative preferences? Like, “I like this more than that.” And then what are the practical realities? Like, “Okay, but we can’t do this or that, because those materials are too expensive.” Or you just can’t fit a human inside those sort of shapes and things like that. So it was a great creative back and forth. I think Weta particularly enjoyed my pragmatism through the process, that I wasn’t too beholden to, “No, it has to be this particular way because I dreamed it.” That particular way. I was most concerned about getting a design that was true to itself, and that we could achieve practically.

Do you think about Mother or your film as a whole living up to, or next to, other movies?

This is really something that has come to me through the process of doing interviews. The big trend in the development of A.I. at the moment is this process called machine learning, where you give an A.I. program a huge amount of data, and then they go and they make assumptions, and they try different things, but measured against their own internal criteria to get a result. That’s how you end up with A.I. programs that can write Mozart songs, because they listened to every Mozart song and they understand what makes a Mozart song, so they make and create their own original piece of Mozart. And there are only more and more examples like that. You’ve seen A.I. create paintings in the tradition of different painters and things like that.

And so, I think that process, which is really fascinating, and it’s what’s driving these monumental breakthroughs in A.I., is really not wildly different to how anybody learns anything. I only knew how to make this film because I’d watched so many different movies beforehand, and it is a reflection of the diet of movies that I grew up watching. There’s not actually that many examples within the film that are directly inspired by other projects. Or if you asked me the internal aesthetic, what specific film it’s reflective of, I’d have a hard time saying, but you can definitely feel them there. I’m mindful of them and who they’re creating in the film, but there’s not really one singular film or a handful of films that it most closely approximates or is inspired by.

If I had to pick one, I’d probably say Alien, which is maybe more of an aesthetic thing than thematic, because obviously Alien is exploring very different terrain and it’s focused on a different kind of drama and has different relationships at its core, but I just love the way that movie looks. If you asked me what my internal barometer for whether I’m close to a shot that I’m proud of, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, but is it as good as Alien or Blade Runner?” So those loom large. Terminator 2 is another incredible movie that people reference when they talk about this movie, but aesthetically there’s not a huge difference.

I suppose there are some thematic similarities between Terminator 2 and this film, and I’m glad if people feel that, I feel flattered. I think there’s a bit of Moon in there which is a great low budget sci-fi that we’re happy to be in the tradition of. I’m trying to think. I mean, I think it’s good to know what you think. When you watch it, what did you see, what came to mind for you?

Well, I think when the movie starts, I thought a lot about Moon, but your references to Alien make a lot of sense to me. I love the robot, but I also really appreciate the production design. You have these corridors and rooms, but then your film drifts into antechambers…well, and other certain locations that I won’t spoil. There are those environments that should not be natural to a manmade place, right? They felt very much like some of the weirder non-technological areas of the Nostromo.

Yeah, no, that’s probably a fair point, and I feel like that’s almost a conversation I had with my production designer at one point is like, the Nostromo is definitely split into two levels, right?

Right, sure.

There’s the white world of the crews quarters, and then there’s the engine world, the subterranean decks, which just functions so well for that movie. I would talk a lot of that with the production designer about utilitarian space and that this place should look like it was built with function front and center, and what’s cost-effective, and what’s reliable and structurally sound, rather than being over-the-top with an aesthetic. So that’s a consideration through most of the space is that it looks designed for pure function and pure survival. Then there are areas that are a little bit more about comfort for humanity and the need for physical cleanliness and stuff like that, that drive the choices in a slightly different direction. But we envisaged them as very utilitarian-ly focused.

Yeah, but I guess what I was trying to say too is there’s a reality to your production design but then there’s also an emotional reality. So you’ll go into certain rooms and whether they match the logic of the last room, it matches the logic of the emotion that’s being experienced by Daughter or Woman.

Yeah, great. I’m glad to hear it.

So, challenge-wise, when you look back at the production of this movie, was there a scene you were more fearful to film?

Certainly, the biggest challenge from the start of the process to the end was getting that robot suit right and knowing that we’d nailed that. Once we had, at that point, a huge weight came off my shoulders, because I knew that we’d cast the film really well. And at that point, with the sets already built, we were in a great place, we were working with a fantastic D.P. Even though this is my first film, I’ve got a lot of experience being on sets shooting commercials and stuff like that.

I wasn’t so nervous about the day-to-day tensions, because getting that damn suit right was my biggest fear. And then after that, it was probably my first day shooting with Hilary, which for all of my experience having been on sets on commercials or doing music videos or short films, I’d certainly never worked with an A-list talent like Hilary before. I was really blessed that all of those concerns evaporated in the first 30 seconds of meeting her, because she’s so committed to making this film as good as it could be. Her instincts are so right and so strong, that I was like, “Okay … ” Phew.

Take one of that first shot on that first day we were working with Hilary, I knew that we were going to be fine. The biggest challenge, when it came to the actual shooting time, was just getting everything shot within the time. It’s a relatively complicated movie made on an independent film budget, so we had to move pretty fast. Certain technical challenges meant that wasn’t always possible, but we got there in the end. Just making your days is constant pressure, I’m sure every filmmaker can feel compassion for.

How did you land on Rose Byrne as the voice of Mother?

I think we just always loved that idea of working with Rose and, in particular, finding a voice that had that incredible soothing quality that Rose has. She has that friendliness that she can project and that poise that she has, with a slight tinge of humor, but then also this intellect behind the voice in terms of, she knows something that the rest don’t know. That mix of traits, we were always looking for. As soon as we went to Rose with an idea, we were like, “Yep, well, she’s got all of those things in spades.” So we were just stoked when she said yes. We didn’t actually sign Rose, or anybody, to do the voice of the Mother until post-production, so we were able to show her the film. And once she saw it, she got it and wanted to be a part of it.

Ultimately, what are you most proud of when you look at the finished film?

I think the center point of our efforts to be unique were really centered on Mother, herself, the robot, both her design and her conception as a character. Again, what differentiates Mother from pretty much all the robots that we’ve seen in films of this nature before is that she’s motivated by a love of humanity and that she wants to do what’s right by the humans as opposed to how most movie robots are either worried about themselves or they’re worried about the continuation of their own species. Not Mother. And, also, just trying to make her look and feel and function like something that we hadn’t seen before. You can’t beat Blade Runner, so don’t go there. You can’t beat Terminator, so don’t go there.

And even Ex Machina, which I love, and had come out after we’d done this script, but that was the constant point of reference where we were like, we want to be as far away from Ex Machina aesthetically as we could be in terms of the look of the bunker and the look of the robot, the center of the story. So it was like being inspired by movies that we love and celebrating movies that we love where that helped us and where that was satisfying to us. And also, pushing away from films to be as distinctive and original as we could be. That was the constant battle throughout the whole process.

I Am Mother is currently available to stream on Netflix.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)